Vaucanson’s Automata as Devices of Enlightenment


  • Joan B. Landes Pennsylvania State University



Vaucanson, automata, mechanics, body


Residing at the interstices of high and low culture, pleasure and utility, wonder and technique, Vaucanson's automata belonged to what historian Michael R. Lynn refers to as ‘a growing web of interconnections between Enlightenment, science, and commerce in Parisian urban culture'. While the wider public attraction to automata during the eighteenth-century has been noted, it is also necessary to address the nature of this appeal, which is derived from the automata's simulation of the workings of human and animal bodies. Vaucanson was one of a number of astonishingly brilliant eighteenth-century mechanicians, who attempted to design material bodies capable of artificially replicating life. Their ingenious machines were indeed devices of Enlightenment, that is, philosophically animated experimental objects. The aim of these devices was to approximate what contemporaries like Diderot referred to as a ‘sentient being' with a particular spatial and dynamic organization. Over time, then, automata makers were challenged to imitate not just the body's mechanics but also the workings of the senses, to capture emotion as well as motion.


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Author Biography

Joan B. Landes, Pennsylvania State University

JOAN B. LANDES is Walter L. and Helen Ferree Professor of Early Modern History and Women’s Studies, Pennsylvania State University. Her books include: Visualizing The Nation: Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France; Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution; Monstrous Bodies/Political Monstrosities in Early Modern Europe; and the forthcoming Gorgeous Beasts: Animal Bodies in Historical Perspective. She is past President of the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies and has held fellowships from, among others, the Getty Research Institute, Guggenheim Foundation, SCASSS, Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National University, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College.